Will easy commutes linger?

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One of the few pleasant byproducts of the recession and its aftermath has been relaxed commutes—fewer people driving
to work, fewer trucks delivering things, fewer service vehicles zipping about. There seems to be less congestion.

The observation is mine along with others who have mentioned similar experiences driving back and forth to work. If you
see something different, chime in with a comment. Unfortunately, we’re stuck with anecdotal evidence because government
statisticians don’t track traffic patterns consistently at the local level.

If you’re noticing comparatively
hassle-free commutes, enjoy them while they last. Broader traffic counts, which dipped in 2008, are rising again.

Miles driven in the upper Midwest are recovering to 2007 levels. In Indiana, traffic already has exceeded 2007 levels on
major city streets and highways; in November, traffic on these Hoosier “urban arterials” almost broke a record
set in the same month in 2006.

All of which raises a question: If traffic is surging, why hasn’t gridlock
of old returned?

Economist Morton Marcus thinks it’s because people who were laid off are still struggling
to find jobs. So they aren’t on the roads during the heaviest drive times.

That explanation is borne out
by employment in the Indianapolis area. The region has lost about 50,000 jobs, and the numbers were still dropping as of December.

Marcus believes overall traffic is rising because people who didn’t lose jobs are easing back into normal lifestyles.
They’re packing popular restaurants and heading to malls. However, few of them are on roads during peak drive times,
so they have little impact on commutes.

Trucks are replenishing depleted inventories in warehouses, but their presence
is spread throughout the day, not just during peak traffic.

Eventually, employers will start hiring again, as they
usually do during the final stages of a typical economic cycle. Until then, commutes promise to remain tolerable.

What are your thoughts?

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